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'Faith and Politics' students take leadership in new directions

Kathryn Stanley, a student in the Master of Religious Leadership degree program, volunteered with a congressional campaign as part of the "Faith and Politics" course taught by Robert Franklin, Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at Candler. Stanley and other students say the course helped them understand their call as leaders.

Students who completed Robert Franklin’s “Faith and Politics” course at Emory’s Candler School of Theology last month knew they would get on-the-ground exposure to how politics and faith interact — class members were required to volunteer for a political campaign, keep a journal and write a final paper proposing strategies for healing a divided nation.  

What most didn’t expect was that the experience would mark a turning point in understanding their call as leaders, a call that takes on new relevance as the country inaugurates a new president.

“We have to think about leadership in a lot of new ways,” says Franklin, the James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership at Candler. “These are students who’ve elected and chosen to attend a school engaged in leadership development — that development involves a spectrum of activities that lead to growth.”

For Franklin’s course, those activities included a compelling lineup of guest speakers and hands-on interactions ranging from door-to-door and parking lot canvassing to registration drives and phone calls. Students were in for some revelations.

“What stuck out to me was how candidate-oriented these [political] campaigns are,” says Laura Robinson, a third-year M.Div. student pursuing ordination in the United Church of Christ. She did door-to-door canvassing, asking people about what’s most important to them as voters, and found a disconnect.

“Part of voters’ disenchantment with politics is the focus on candidates rather than policies,” Robinson says. “People care about policies and what’s really going to affect their lives,” which she sees as a hopeful sign.

“As leaders in the church, we’re not campaigning for particular candidates — ever — but we can and should help people get educated about amendments and policies that will affect them, their communities and our country,” Robinson says.                         

For Kathryn Stanley, the contrast between the buzz at campaign headquarters stood in stark contrast to the quiet apathy in some neighborhoods where she did canvassing.

“You would have thought there was not an election going on,” says Stanley, a student in the Master of Religious Leadership Program. “It felt like there are still certain communities for whom it really doesn’t matter; they don’t feel connected to politics and don’t feel their vote counts.”

What surprised first-year M.Div. student Jason Hardman most was the absence of talk about faith during his campaign work. “We are called to bring our faith into the public square,” he said during one class discussion. “I hear from some that ‘all we can do is pray,’ but I hope Christians can mobilize to do more than that.”

Shannon Mayfield, who finished his M.Div. at the end of the semester, agreed. “We saw a lot of people who aren’t talking to each other,” he says.

"What do people need to hear to heal?"

Mayfield is a second-career student who has worked in politics since he was in his 20s, and says he “follows politics the way some 9-year-olds follow baseball.” Even so, he admits that “frankly it was very difficult to hold one’s Christianity and one’s politics in the same hand” during this election cycle.

For Constance Folsom, who volunteered in a congressional campaign, the lesson was personal. “I got a chance to see the sacrifices that the candidate herself was making in her own life to even run for office,” says Folsom, who will graduate in May with a Master of Religious Leadership degree.

“In order for any of us to be involved in the political process that affects our lives, we have to make some sacrifices and give up a little bit of ourselves,” she says. “I’ve decided to step back from knee-jerk reactions and ask myself, as a leader, what do people need to hear to heal?”One of the things Folsom is trying to do differently is “to stop following other people’s fear narratives” on social media.

“As leaders, we have to have a different narrative — and it may be a narrative different from how we personally feel — in order to help others,” Folsom says. “We’ll never get to a place of open dialogue and communication if we’re all complaining about whatever we feel is the problem.”

Expanding the conversation

Stanley says the course has strengthened her resolve to work with young people “around issues of justice and peace building, because I think of lot of their eyes are open now,” referring to widespread surprise at the election outcome. “It’s a chance to help them get their voices honed and heard.”

Hardman is determined in his church leadership “to meet with other denominations, starting with other neighboring Christian congregations in my area, and to reach out to other faith groups to get an interfaith dialogue going. I want to start with my network and see if we can brainstorm.”

Mayfield, who plans to return to Montana to pursue ordination in the Yellowstone Conference of the United Methodist Church, says he is reminded “that we have specific calls and we can’t outsource them to government or a political party.”

“We have to take the medicine we’re prescribing to others,” Mayfield points out. His commitments, he says, are two-fold.

“I’ve promised to redouble my efforts to help the oppressed and disenfranchised and those who it’s now fashionable to attack and revile. We’ve got to stand up courageously," he explains. "But I’ve also committed myself to step across the demilitarized zone of modern politics and attempt to understand and have compassion for and sensitivity to people who see the world from a different perspective than mine. That’s my personal resolution.”  

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